Reloosing the Juice

The arrest and trial of O.J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman, didn’t just fit the bill of ‘Trial of the Century’ as well as anything that’s ever happened.  It was an event of seismic cultural significance, a slow-moving disaster that was repulsive and wrong on almost every conceivable level — and yet it was so astonishing and compelling that you couldn’t look away from it if you wanted to.  It was that perfect blend of the high and low, the noble and the base, the absurd and the glorious, and it not only taught everyone who paid attention to it lessons they would never forget, but more or less permanently altered their perceptions of everything that would come after it.

Given its almost unprecedented pre-eminence in popular culture, it’s’ almost shocking how little fiction has been made about it.  Much of that is due to legal issues, of course; many of the prominent figures involved are still alive, and, unsurprisingly, they are also alarmingly litigious.  But part of it is a paucity of artistic vision, and a reluctance to tackle a prospect of such depth and sprawl.  The arrest, the trial, and its aftermath went on for over a year, and literally ate up headlines every day; telling such a story with any kind of skill would require an extremely precise hand, a keen sense of what to focus on and what to leave out, and a sure storytelling ability.  Given the bona fides of the people behind American Crime Story:  The People v. O.J. Simpson, I had very little confidence in their ability to muster these qualities.

Creators Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are best known as screenwriters with a particular interest in true Hollywood story-type biopics; they’ve turned in work that ranges from excellent to dismal, but nothing in their background suggested the discipline to tackle such a sprawling narrative. Producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are the men behind Glee, for which my loathing is legendary, and American Horror Story, which is much better but failed to catch my interest because of the material.  Somehow, though, they and their crew — which includes some crack hired writing and directorial hands like Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky, Anthony Hemingway, and John Singleton — managed to display a surprising mastery of the material, an even and approachable attitude towards the material, and most importantly, the ability to keep the pressure on and create a tight and suspenseful mini-series out of a story whose ending is known to practically the whole world.

The People v. O.J. Simpson grabs the viewer from the very first frame; the digital camerawork is done in a snappy verité style that gives it a sleazy true-crime veneer and makes the opening sequences, where Brown and Goldman’s bodies are discovered and the police investigators (including a welcome appearance from The Wire‘s Chris Bauer) slowly realize the magnitude of what they’ve stumbled upon.  The style shifts over time, but always manages to stay rewardingly focused on the legal proceedings, the clash of personalities over time, and the immense, almost unbearable frustrations of trying to attempt a fair trial in a situation that pitted a beloved, enormously wealthy, and famous African-American athlete (who was nonetheless almost unquestionably guilty of a brutal double homicide) against a hopelessly racist, corrupt, and compromised criminal justice system (which was nonetheless trying to put away a man who deeply deserved it).

There is almost no event in recent memory that so harnessed the complexity and ambiguity of modern America as the Simpson trial, and part of the reward as well as the frustration of watching The People v. O.J. Simpson is being reminded not only of the million little absurdities and mind-bending coincidences that took place during the trial, but of how, no matter where you stood on the matter of Simpson’s guilt, no one came away from the whole ordeal looking clean.  We’re still seeing echoes of the trial and its outcome everywhere:  as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us, you don’t have to care one way or another about the specifics of the case to know that African-Americans are routinely cheated, savaged, bullied, framed, and killed by a profoundly and perhaps irredeemably racist police establishment.  (Indeed, the Simpson verdict was a major motivator for racist cops in the years that followed.)  Likewise, you don’t have to have a strong opinion on whether or not lead prosecutor Marcia Clark botched the state’s case to realize how badly she was treated by the press and the opposing attorneys, using an institutional sexism that has barely changed since 1994, or to see how domestic violence — especially when committed by wealthy and powerful athletes — is often minimized or ignored.

The People v. O.J. Simpson manages to seed the mind of the viewer with every one of the maddening qualities the trial unearthed in the American psyche — racism, sexism, celebrity worship, institutional corruption, sports culture, the way wealth pollutes the justice system, victim’s rights, the media, and a dozen others — while telling a very entertaining and expertly balanced story.  Some of the directorial work, in particular, is downright wonderful, from the characteristic use of slowly moving rear-angle shots to the meticulous way costumes, settings, and even characteristic poses (almost innate memories for those of use who saw them in the press for months on end) are perfectly captured.  There’s some hooty dialogue (most of which belongs to a slumming Robert Morse as Dominick Dunne), but the writers are terrific in their choice of where to place critical scenes in the timeline, and few outright embarrassing moments from creators all too capable of camp.

The performances, so critical in a story with so many characters and moving pieces, can be hit-and-miss; Cuba Gooding Jr. isn’t quite right as Simpson, John Travolta overacts woozily as Robert Shapiro, and David Schwimmer never has much to do as Robert Kardashian (who the series tries to make the focus of whatever sympathy we might have for the defense team) but look fretful — though he does get one of the show’s most ridiculous bits of dialogue.  But Rob Morrow and Courtney B. Vance are terrific as Barry Schreck and Johnnie Cochrane, two well-meaning but self-serving figures who allow their desire to win a case with an indefensible client turn into a false crusade, and, as Marcia Clark and Chris Darden — two figures who were put in the most miserable situation imaginable, and had to not only try a vile human being who’d surrounded himself with enough money to be invincible, but to do it while the entire system of justice they represented was itself on trial — Sterling K. Brown and Sarah Paulson are absolutely tremendous.  (The underrated Kenneth Choi should get a nod as well as Lance Ito, the judge who was seduced by the celebrity potential of trying the case and was slowly crushed by what a shitshow it turned into.  I’d almost forgotten the way it became a personal matter for him thanks to one of the most tortured and circuitous connections imaginable.)

The next season of American Crime Story will deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a story that doesn’t outwardly seem to be a crime at all, but in fact truly was a series of crimes, corruptions, and negligent behaviors that nearly murdered an entire city.  It, too, is a racially sensitive, politically explosive, and still-controversial tale that sprawls all over the place and doesn’t seem possible to sum up in a 10-episode serial format; but, given how remarkably watchable its creators made The People v. O.J. Simpson, I can’t wait to see what they do with it.

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